We Can Have Unity Without Unanimity

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was Prime Minister of England during World War II. He rallied his people to fight back against Nazi Germany even though some of them advocated surrender.

Faced with such disagreement, Churchill said something that’s still relevant in 2018:

“National unity does not require national unanimity.”

In other words, people can stand together as a country even if they disagree.

But that kind of unity isn’t automatic. It requires a few things:

  • The desire to stand united. People have to want it. If different groups hate each other so much that they’d rather die than work together, then they probably will.

For England in World War II, the choice was clear: people could either unite to defend their country or be conquered by Germany. Even the advocates of surrender loved their country and its people. They joined with the majority to defend them.

  • The ability to stand united. People must either agree or they must be rational enough to set aside their differences for mutual benefit and the common good.

Hysterical mobs cannot do that. Their emotions have overpowered their reason. They have become, as the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said in another context, “like beasts of prey.” (The Guide of the Perplexed, Part II, Chapter 36)

  • The belief that it’s worth the cost. People must want the benefits of unity more than they insist on getting their own way. That means compromise.

Nobody likes compromise because we’d all prefer to have things our way, all the time. But setting priorities can help. Some values are so basic that they’re not open to debate. Other values are matters of opinion and feeling about which reasonable, morally conscientious people disagree. The tough part is to know the difference.

I once had a boss who proclaimed every new task to be “top priority.” He rushed into my office every morning, seemingly in panic, waving his arms and jabbering that we had to drop everything else and do this or that thing right away. It never seemed to occur to him that at any given moment, only one task could be top priority.

If everything was top priority, then nothing was top priority: our tasks all had equal priority.

Likewise, some people thoughtlessly assume that all viewpoints and values are “top priority,” and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a devil. That’s a profoundly destructive attitude.

Social life, like marriage, requires compromise; and we can’t compromise if we think that all of our beliefs are non-negotiable divine mandates carved in stone. A few of them are, but most of them aren’t.

Before we refuse to discuss or cooperate on an issue, we should think carefully to make sure it really is something so important that we just can’t budge about it. If it’s not, then compromise is possible. We can have unity without unanimity.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said “It’s quite a feat how this book bridges the gap between the ancients and the moderns.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Jewish Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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